It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.
A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.
I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.
I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.
It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.
I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.
But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.
I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.
For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.
Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.
That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.
Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.
Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.
As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.
Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.
Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.
K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.
If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).
And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.
Summer is ready when you are, y’all.
I wrote favorably about Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s feminist bookstore sketches for their Web series ThunderAnt some time ago. And I was certainly excited to hear that IFC picked up their show Portlandia. Having reserved commentary on the first season until its completion, as I like reviewing at least an entire season rather than have the pilot represent a television show, I’m glad the show has been renewed. This is especially smart on IFC’s part, as the sketch series’ proclivity for eating its own (in this case, hipster bon vivants) is a savvy way for the network to tap into its target demographic (hipsters love to eat their own). But I recommend it with two reservations. For one, I’m not sure it has much else to do but lampoon liberal dogoodery. For another, I’m defensive against Portland.
Let’s address my second point first, as it’s petty. I’m from Houston and have lived in Austin for nearly ten years. It’s no big secret that Austin and Portland have a faux rivalry. If the two cities could, we’d probably erect a civil war involving bicycles and beard-growing contests. Athens would probably swoop in and crush both of us.
Now, I should say that some of my favorite people represent Portland. Bitch, a publication to which I subscribe and occasionally pays me for freelance work, resides there. The folks on staff are really nice. I will be covering the music portion of SXSW for them and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. I hope that half-week is filled with breakfast tacos and Lone Star. What’s more, the city was well represented in the media studies graduate program I attended. There were three folks hailing from there in my cohort (I called them the Portland Contingent), and two others who started their respective MA and PhD programs during my second year. They’re lovely people. Two of those girls I consider friends for life who I know I would’ve sat with at lunch if we knew each other in high school. But upon several occasions I’ve been audience to overtures of Portland’s superiority, to which I often felt compelled to say “You think you’re better than me? You ain’t better than me.” Also, “Say hi to your mother for me.”
Apart from intense civic pride, my acrimony is somewhat unsubstantiated. For one, despite being the best place for porch drinking, I know my city isn’t perfect. Among other things, we need more vegan eateries and we need to be nicer to queer people. We’re also a blue oasis in a big red war zone. Furthermore, I’ve never actually been to Portland. I made a connection from PDX to Eugene for Console-ing Passions last spring, but I didn’t poke around during my three-hour layover. For one, it’s a hassle to get back into an airport. For another, I don’t have a sense for the city’s geography–basically all I know is that Food Fight, Powell’s, and Voodoo Donuts are “somewhere”. Finally, I ran into Kristen of Dear Black Woman, who was also presenting at the conference. As she’s a fellow southerner and one of my favorite people, we chatted while waiting for our flight. Actually, we almost missed it because we were laughing so much. Seriously, they had to call us over the intercom to get us on the plane.
Portland defenses aside, my criticisms with the show extend deeper than civic rivalry. I will say that Portlandia does a good job putting the show in a specific place. Portland’s geography takes on a character in the show, giving scenes a sense of place and community. In the second season, I wonder if this show will be able of accomplish what SCTV (and its sitcom successors The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation) set out by building a show and its characters around a specific town and its inhabitants. I recognize that recurring characters–as well as links–can be the bane of sketch comedy’s existence, though Portlandia already has the feminist bookstore owners. As a fan of The State, I know that MTV’s mandate for recurring characters and catchphrases became a snarky in-joke which led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not suggesting that Portlandia follow these tropes in sketch comedy. But a strength of the series is its specificity of place and it’ll be interesting to see how it will expand and elaborate on this in the ten-episode second season.
However, my main problem with Portlandia is that I don’t think it has much to say. This ultimately detracts from the show’s established sense of place. While the show foregrounds its location, many of these scenes could play out in Austin, Madison, Athens, or other cities “where young people go to retire.” Portlandia has yet to discover what makes itself special and hasn’t been able to diversify its subject of interest. This is what’s keeping it from translating well from YouTube to television network.
Though there are funny scenes, the comedy tends to play out in obvious ways that don’t do enough to deepen or expand upon its basic premise. As of now, the show really only has one joke: hipsters sure are quirky. It plays this out in several ways: putting birds on craft items, having hotel staff trash a swanky lobby to impress a visiting band (played by chums James Mercer, Corin Tucker, and Colin Meloy), bike fights, dumpster diving, technology rabbit holes, Harajuku girls marveling at tiny coffee cups, locavorism, photoshoots for alterna weeklys, feminist bookstore owners astounding would-be clientele with their inefficiency, and a woman fretting over how to make the box that her partner’s strap-on was mailed in environmentally safe. But the joke is ostensibly the same each time and lacks any spirit of invention or criticism. Apart from having an at-times wobbly sense of sensitivity toward ethnic groups and trans men, I think it makes cheap potshots that don’t reveal any bigger truths about the communities they’re sending up. Compare a scene in Portlandia to this gem from Mr. Show. It may seem unfair to compare the first season of a show adapted from a Web series to one of sketch comedy’s standard bearers, but I think this scene neatly encapsulates much of hipster culture’s sense of entitlement and obscurity fetish. It plays for laughs, but lends some critical vigor to its subject. It also mocks the comic’s persona, which is something Armisen and Brownstein only attempt at.
The closest we come to something resembling the absurdity and critical bite in the first season of Portlandia is this send-up of locavorism. It’s my favorite. If the show could build upon this, we’ll really have something.
I just got back from the American Sabor exhibit at the Bob Bullock Museum, which I took my partner, mother, stepfather, and stepbrother to see. I specifically wanted to take my mom, a choir director, in honor of Mother’s Day. This wonderful collection focuses on Latino and Latinas contributions to popular music. Having heard guest curator/University of Washington professor Michelle Habell-Pallán’s plenary presentation on the collection at Console-ing Passions, I was itching to go. As a music history educator for Girls Rock Camp Austin, I couldn’t wait to start incorporating these artists into our curriculum.
Three days after Cinco de Mayo, it’s particularly relevant given the racism and xenophobia informing policies like Arizona’s SB 1o70, which my former professor Jennifer Fuller rightly dubbed as wrong-headed at a recent protest in town. If you live in the Austin area, make it a priority to see the exhibit this weekend, as tomorrow is its last day at Bob Bullock.
The bilingual exhibit doesn’t divide the work of these musicians so much by genre, as it’s clearly making the case that Latino and Latina contributions have been varied, ingratiating itself in rock, hip hop, country, dance, soul, jazz, and a myriad of other musical styles. Instead, the exhibit is organized by geographical locations. The emphasized cities are San Antonio, East Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and New York City, though contributions from folks in Tuscon, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit are also acknowledged. I particularly appreciated the care given toward providing a sociohistoric context toward migration patterns, cultural history, and the evolution of cityspaces in relation to the musical offerings and innovation of its populations.
There were many significant artifacts on display. I was particularly struck by outfits worn by Selena, Celia Cruz, Freddy Fender, and SB 1070 protestor Linda Ronstadt. I also enjoyed seeing Doug Sahm’s guitar, Eva Ybarra’s accordion, and Isidro Lopez’s speaker. I loved the wall of album covers and the displays of vintage posters, some of which were created by Los Angeles-based graphic designers Sister Karen Boccalero and Walter Nelez. I found the collected interview footage, oral history kiosks, and historical timelines for topics like lowrider cars, pachucos, Radio Jalepeno, the United Farm Workers strike, and the Chicano Rights Movement (which informed me of 1954’s sickeningly prescient Operation Wetback) most useful. I loved all the walk-in jukeboxes that represented each area and some of the more noteworthy songs or musical movements that emanated therein. I was energized by how many of these artists were politically active, including Los Illegals and Tijuana No!
I was also pleasantly surprised by how interactive the exhibit is. A dance floor is included for guests who want to learn salsa, mambo, cha cha, and a variety of disciplines these artists and their fans popularized. A mixing board is also available for folks who want to put together their own versions of “Song for Cesar” and “La Murga de Panamá.” I got a kick out of the Play That Hook station, which includes a piano with light-up keys to teach people how to play the hooks to songs like War’s “Low Rider.”
I especially loved how Latina musicians were incorporated throughout the exhibit rather than relegated to one section of it. I was delighted to see East L.A. punks Alice Armandariz of The Bags and Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat alongside San Diego’s Rosie Hamlin of Rosie and the Originals, whose teen pop classic “Angel Baby” (which Hamlin wrote) should be included with the One Kiss Can Lead To Another box set, along with singles from The Arvisu Sisters. I also delighted in discovering Martha Gonzalez of East L.A.-based Quetzal, who plays a tarima, which is a platform onto which the performer stomps rhythms.
I also enjoyed seeing and hearing the influence of Cuban musicians like La Lupe and Celia Cruz and the impact they had on future generations of Cuban American artists, most notably Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.
As a Texan, I was so proud of Texas Latinas’ contributions to Tejano. Eva Ybarra, Lydia Mendoza, and Laura Canales broke barriers as some of the first women in Tejano’s myriad of subgenres, forging a path Selena would later bring closer to the mainstream. Bands like Girl in a Coma make clear that a variety of influences from multiple cultural origins can be brought together and positively rock in the process.
Thus, American Sabor proves that Latino and Latina contributions to popular music have been intrinsic and influential. By emphasizing the diversity of participants within this large aggregate, it makes the point even clearer that they themselves are ubiquitous in music culture.
While on my maiden voyage (har!) to Eugene for Console-ing Passions, I had the latest Lorrie Moore in my carry-on, courtesy of Kristen at Act Your Age. I actually knew nothing about Moore going in, particularly that she teaches in the English department at Madison (a university well-represented at aforementioned conference). Thus I had no expectations going into a novel about a female college student who nannies for a damaged married white couple who adopt outside their race. That it was set post-9/11 interested me, as I was roughly two weeks into freshman year and on my way to the bus stop following my 8 a.m. journalism survey course with Bob Jensen when news circulated that the towers fell.
But I was mainly interested in the fact that protagonist Tassie Keltjin was a bassist who loved Sleater-Kinney. Thus it was Carrie Brownstein, who mentioned that her former power trio were name-checked in Moore’s prose, who peaked my curiosity in A Gate at the Stairs. I was especially interested in the protagonist’s fandom as, 1) I picked up a used copy of The Woods for Record Store Day and can’t get it out of my car CD player and 2) Sleater-Kinney were known for being a power trio with no bass player.
I won’t reveal too much, as many people (including the person who loaned me the book) haven’t read it yet. I will say that it’s a well-written book that I liked. Some of the passages were arresting, particularly those involving Keltjin’s rural Midwestern upbringing, her aimless younger brother, and the two tragic incidents that forever scarred her employers and her own family. I liked reading about Keltjin’s roommate Murph, an acerbic girl who uses black soap and black dental floss. I felt the sting of white guilt, self-righteous racism, and privileged ignorance when reading the conversations Keltjin’s employers Sarah Brink and Edward Thornwood had with their bougie support group for adoptive parents to children of color.
I also related to Keltjin’s somewhat decorative humanities-based education, though I’d like to think that the undergraduate courses I took in copy editing, media management, women’s history, and rock culture prepared me for the professional life I’m plotting out. They certainly were more useful to me than Keltjin’s wine-tasting class, though I’d probably teach the course she takes on war movie soundtracks. And as I strolled the terminal alone, I got a sense for Keltjin’s isolation. I’ll say no more on the synopsis, other than offer my recommendation and spend the remainder of the post focusing on a peripheral but integral aspect of the protagonist’s characterization: Keltjin’s musicianship.
As a guitar player, I was especially struck by Keltjin’s commitment to the bass, which she essentially taught herself to play. I found it interesting that Keltjin believed the guitar to be too easy to play and the forced physicality required of bassists. I’ll hedge that there’s nothing easy about getting your fingers dexterous enough for guitar, but recognize that one stringed instrument necessitates fluidity from its instrumentalist while another requires tension against it.
I also like that Keltjin and Murph briefly engage in songwriting together. This follows Keltjin’s break-up with a classmate that occurs around the same time as the end of Murph’s relationship with a guy the readers never meet. Murph also teaches herself to play Keltjin’s bass. Thus, they rely on both music and each other to get over their heartache.
Finally, I appreciate that the end of the novel, which involves the aftermath of a family tragedy, includes mention of Keltjin potentially following through on a want ad she finds from a band looking for a bassist. As she gets settled into her college life, I’d like to think the phone call she makes turns into a surprising new opportunity.
This time next week, I’ll be presenting a conference paper at Console-ing Passions. Thus, between it and my stint at Bitch, I’m a little stretched at the moment. I do have a personal goal to rewatch Times Square this weekend and put together a post. Ever the student, I thought it would be fun to spotlight two ladies who are teaching me how to do some cool things. Maybe they can help you too, especially if you’re looking to whale on Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or learn the moves to Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope.”
Here’s Kelly Rosenthal walking us through how to shred on “Beat It.”
And here’s Ladia Yates teaching us how to tip on the tightrope.